Set in Montana in 1925, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank were a pair of wealthy brothers who ran a sprawling cattle ranch. The two brothers were polar opposites in demeanor. While Phil was arrogant, boisterous and insensitive, his brother George was cool, refined and composed. Phil did not care about his level of education or his wealth, preferring to work with cattle than with people of his social class.
They met the widow Mrs. Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) when they dined at her restaurant. Phil's frank teasing of Peter's effeminate nature drove both mother and son to tears. George, on the other hand, paid court to Rose, eventually getting her to marry him. When Rose and Peter moved into the Burbank mansion, they both bore witness to Phil's bizarre behavior up close and personal.
Based on his previous films, we know that Benedict Cumberbatch had a screen presence so strong that this made any of his performances riveting. His character here, Phil Burbank, was hateful and loathsome, but you simply cannot get your eyes off him, no matter how unpleasant. His character is toxic (in personality and in odor) and he was proud of it. Cumberbatch may well be the one of the front-runners in the race for the Best Actor Oscar.
His three supporting actors play characters who lived and squirmed under Phil's thumb. Jesse Plemons is an ace when playing mousy shy characters like George. His real-life partner Kirsten Dunst was so delicate as sad and insecure Rose, especially that painful scene of her desperately trying to play the piano. There's Oscar buzz for Dunst that's fully deserved. Young Kodi-Smit McPhee stood his ground alongside his acclaimed senior co-stars as bullied teenager Peter.
This was the first film by director Jane Campion since "Bright Star" in 2009. Like it was for her masterpiece "The Piano" (1993), the bleak mountainous landscape (New Zealand standing in for Montana) was essential to the story as it was breathtaking to see. Her slowburn pace was rife with tension, building up that all that suggestive uncertainty all the way to a powerfully compelling ending.
Her victory as director in Venice portends an Oscar may follow.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”